Outgoing State Superintendent On Education: "North Carolina Is At A Crossroads"
State Superintendent June Atkinson is wrapping up her tenure after 11 years. The Democrat was seeking a fourth term but lost to Republican challenger Mark Johnson in last month’s election.
She’s spent more than 40 years in education and is the first woman to hold to the job. In an interview with WFDD’s Keri Brown, Atkinson says she was shocked by the loss and that right now, education in North Carolina is at a crossroads.
Her thoughts on the direction of education in the state:
“Are we going to continue to support public education, or are we going to promote and allow cottage industries of education to pop up throughout North Carolina? And if that happens, are we going to have the same accountability system for our private schools as we have for our public schools?” asks Atkinson.
“We are at a crossroads. Many people have taken public education for granted, that it will always be there and I see signs that it may not always be there unless the people of this state speak out.”
She’s referring to the continued growth of charter schools and money the legislature has set aside for opportunity scholarships. That’s the current voucher program, which offers up to $4,200 for low-income families who qualify.
Supporters say it gives students a choice to attend private schools that meet their needs.
Some Republican leaders, including President-elect Donald Trump, have talked about expanding these programs.
But Atkinson says moving forward in this direction is worrisome.
“That says to me that approach at the expense of helping all students is a way to give a wonderful buffet of food for some children then starve the other children with just feeding bread and water. That child living in poverty still doesn’t have the transportation, still doesn’t have the mental health support, still doesn’t have the resources, still goes to bed hungry,” says Atkinson. “I would like to see change of adequate resources, I would like to see change in how we treat our teachers.”
More Work To Be Done:
That, she says, starts with improving teacher salaries.
The state legislature recently gave pay raises to some teachers and merit bonuses to non-educators. Republican leaders say they’ve also increased education spending.
But Atkinson says it’s not enough.
“Some work that needs to be done is the implementation of our digital learning plan where we move from 20th century traditions to other traditions that will really make a difference. We also have to do a lot of work with what we call home base, our information technology system. It’s a powerful tool and we need to build on that,” she says. “At the top of my list [of] what we need to have is a comprehensive teacher and educator compensation system.”
As she looks back on her career, Atkinson says she’s proud of the work she’s done, like improving the state’s high school graduation rates and the relationships she’s built along the way. She visited every school district in the state and says she understands the struggles educators face every day.
Her Next Chapter:
So what’s next for Atkinson?
“Well, I’m giving myself six months to assess life and to reflect. I know one thing I want to do is write a book. I already have a title. The name of the book is ‘What I Really Was Thinking: Bless Their Hearts.’ I will share the experiences that I’ve had throughout North Carolina in education,” says Atkinson.
She adds, “I’ve often said that I would really like to be a teacher assistant in a kindergarten class, so maybe some principal in this state will allow me to volunteer in a kindergarten class. Candidly, I don’t know what’s next, but I will always hold dear the many wonderful memories of the children in our state. I’m so grateful of the opportunity that I’ve had.”
June Atkinson’s last official day as the state superintendent of public instruction is December 31.
*Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news